In the grunge/gangsta moment in which the Spinanes released their debut, Manos, the simple makeup of the Portland, Ore., duo seemed a loaded gesture in itself. While Snoop and Dre raked in the dollars with an urgently macho bass sound, singer/guitarist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf thought little enough of the bass guitar to exclude it from their band. Recording for Sub Pop, the Spinanes represented a departure from grunge histrionics that, for the label at the time, was radical. Thanks in part to the media profile of Manos (it reached No. 1 on Entertainment Weekly’s college radio chart), Sub Pop has since gracefully diversified its roster and subsequently sheltered itself from the grunge backlash.
But whatever symbolic meaning can be derived from the Spinanes’ unconventional lineup is far less critical than the uncommon complexity of their music. When Manos’ opening track—the gorgeous, delicately strummed lament, “Entire”—gives way to the rhythmic burst of “Noel, Jonah, and Me,” Gates and Plouf stake their claim to as much sonic territory as any guitar-wise indie aesthete could ever hope to capture on a four-track. When “Entire”’s quiet heartbreak gives way to “Noel”’s blustery guitars and Gates’ query, “Did you give up punk for lent?,” I can’t help but think that she is copping an attitude in making the transition seem so effortless.
The only major disappointment with Strand, the follow-up to Manos, is that Gates’ experiences have caused her to lose some emotional dexterity. Like Liz Phair, Gates has given indie rock a volatile female voice without allowing naked rage to strip her songs of their form; ignore the low-fi trappings and confrontational gender politics and both are singer-songwriters in the classic sense. But unlike that of Phair, a devout fan of intimacy, Gates’ perspective on Manos was that of someone profoundly detached; her musings read as the diary of a shy person who quietly fiddled with her hair while observing others carouse and flirt. The outsider’s viewpoint allowed Gates to explore love’s contours without succumbing to the hysterics of an active participant. In essence, she still harbored the hope for romantic idealism that’s generally only accessible to those who are on the prowl.
On Strand, Gates speaks from the void where relationships become dysfunctional and makes it clear that the pathos stems from personal involvement. Gates’ experience has brought to light a sense of inadequacy that was only hinted at on Manos, but putting a refreshing twist on self-loathing, she hardly seems perturbed that she’s shouldering the blame for her misfortune. On “Punch Line Loser,” Gates nods at her unrefined social skills when she laments, “There’s nothing so pathetic as the way I blow a punch line,” but later embraces the awkwardness, singing, “There’s nothing quite as lovely as the time as weird as ours.” Hearing Gates divulge an obsession that no doubt still lingers (“lost in this place, the repeat of your name, the small of your back”) on “Valency,” the song’s anthemic uplift seems inappropriate until a chorus takes hold like a breakthrough therapy session: “I know why I liked you….I know what I lacked.”
Given that, as a singer, Gates is more of an expressive communicator of soft tones than a raspy belter—even on the Spinanes’ rockers, it seems like she’s only amplifying her whisper—it’s a shame that the Strand tracks that tend toward quietness are also the album’s only disposable ones. While low-fi purists could fault the meditative “Madding” for its production flourishes or balk at the cello-and-piano accompaniment on “Watch Down,” I skip over them because the incisive kick of Gates’ songwriting goes south when she gets stuck gazing into her navel.
Still, whatever damage requited love has done to Gates’ perspective, it’s done wonders for her vocal textures. Along with Gates’ detachment came an air of ambivalence that’s easier to detect now that it’s gone; on Manos, if Gates ever hinted at lust, it was left unclear if the wispy croon was coming from someone aching from desire or hoping for intercourse to end so she could get some sleep. The implied sexual apathy is beguilingly potent (see also Elastica). But on Strand, Gates’ voice has a more commanding presence. So when on “Lines and Lines” Gates sings that “all the lips that kiss me are no match for your fevered touch,” the sentiments are as absolute as when she hands walking papers to her lover on “Oceanwide” because “I’m just disgusted and I could care less.”
Now that Gates is writing from within the old circle she used to simply observe, she sacrifices some of her iconoclasm. Couple that with more meticulous production and Strand sounds relatively conventional. But in the void, Gates still has clearer vision than most. When on “Azure” she realizes with a sense of sweet relief that “it’s second nature to go,” you know that Gates isn’t letting empathy cloud her better judgment. It can only be a matter of time until she’s back on the prowl.
As a practicing masochist, the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli uses bad judgment as a matter of artistic principle. For their 1993 release, Gentlemen, the Whigs went to the same studio where Big Star recorded Third and emerged with the ’90s most twisted break-up album: the hellish testament of a relationship so mutually disruptive you’d think those involved were participating on a dare. In one of the many instances in which Dulli claimed to be getting some pleasure from the pain, he sang, “I get dressed up to play the assassin again. It’s my favorite. It’s got personality.”
Putting to rest the notion that an intelligent man can learn to avoid fire after getting seriously burnt, the Whigs return to the scene of Gentlemen’s crime with Black Love. Where Gentlemen marked an artistic breakthrough for a band that had previously made two marginal records for Sub Pop, Love is a near-campy re-enactment of it.
However, it’s hard not to admire Dulli for the shamelessness of his efforts. Even before he became an indie sex-god, Dulli didn’t pay any mind to his status as a virtual nobody, draping himself with celebrity arrogance well before anyone cared enough even to consider him an asshole. That’s hardly abnormal behavior for any artist. But like the pre-Live Through This Courtney Love, Dulli early on exhibited such a taste for attention (upon the release of Gentlemen, Dulli attributed his insolence to genius) that his eventual popularity seemed inevitable.
With Black Love, Dulli fixes to reinvent himself as a soul man. A longtime fan of R&B (on a ’92 Sub Pop EP, the Whigs covered Al Green and the Supremes), Dulli borrows soul music’s dramatic scope to make the Whigs something greater than another group of angry white punks; even while the SuperFly grooves in “Bulletproof” and “Blame Inc.” fail to mask the Whigs’ rock roots, the mangy hybrid is a sound few other white funksters have explored. And if Black Love reveals anything new about Dulli’s self-destructive MO, it’s that he intends to chalk up enough personal misery to be able to earn the soul man’s crown without having to answer to the fact that he’s a white guy with less than perfect pitch. On Love’s first single, “Honkey’s Ladder,” Dulli states his case in no uncertain terms when he asks, “How high does a brother have to climb to touch the lights?”
Dulli’s question is most easily answered by the fact that the only things Black Love has in common with ’70s soul are ornamental—a hip-shaking organ groove here, a fidgety wah-wah fill there. But in a time when self-important whiners are in control of much of pop music’s character, it’s refreshing to hear someone emote with a sense of greater purpose.CP